The Lost Treasure of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)

lost treasure of BBC old filmsGuest Post by Beatrice Mercedes

The Lost Treasure of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)

The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) is famous around the world, as being a provider of news and entertainment on Radio and Television. It has part in creating lost treasures for you to find. The BBC was established and exists as a public broadcasting service under an English ‘Royal Charter’, meaning that it is officially recognized in Britain as an institution and not just a collection of individuals, and that it operates under an agreement with the British Government, specifically with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Due to its special place in TV history, its existence and records make the BBC not just a primary institution for students in Art, Media and Culture to study, but also devoted fans of some historic cult shows and actors see the historic material held by the BBC as genuine treasure, and some of that treasure is LOST!

This is because of a series of attitudes and situations that existed during a very influential time in the history of the BBC. As with so many things, people don’t realize the value of what they have at the time they have it.

Although the BBC originated in 1927 with its Radio broadcasting, it established its Television operation in 1932. In the beginning, no-one could have been able to see how grounded Television would become in our modern culture, and this fledging authority worked in most trial and error in establishing a program of entertainment for the British public. Slowly, proven formulas became to be set, offering regular news announcements, set times for children programs, cultural affairs and drama and comedy.

Television Broadcasting was in its infancy. All the skills of stage production and acting had to adapt to the new requirements of the technical issues of filming, which themselves also seemed to be in a constant state of development, most specially when color vision was introduced during the early 70’s.

One of the by-products of all this was that virtually all film footage was stored. Initially due simply have material that could be re-transmitted or distributed to other countries for sale or rent. Remember this is a time before Video Recorders and DVD’s, and so if a viewer ‘missed’ their program, they just had to wait for it to be rebroadcasted at a later date. No one envisaged the idea of owning their own copies, except those rare few members of public would who had their own film and projection equipment.

As such, for around 40 years, every inch of film was sent for storage, which meant a lot of film and a lot of space was required to accomplish this. Besides the space that was required, which meant building to be bought, rented and maintained, is storage had to be very specific, as film is not only very flammable, it also needs to be stored at a constant temperature of 55º Fahrenheit, if not the footage would deteriorate. Therefore, storage was difficult and proving very expensive, and as the danger of fire and cost of replacing was rising, insurance companies began to refuse to offer cover.

Due to this, in the early 1970’s, the BBC made an executive decision to review the recordings they had in store. As the public were demanding new color productions, the interest to rebroadcast ‘black and white’ shows greatly reduced, so little point was seen paying for the expensive storage of production that seemed never to be aired again. So an active assessment of what was being stored was reviewed. Programs were ‘graded’ by their possible historic value, as such an estimate was made about how they may be considered in future generations.

Dr. Who Tardis Photo Credit: By aussiegall from sydney, Australia

Dr. Who Tardis Photo Credit: By aussiegall from sydney, Australia

Top priority was given to ‘A List’ shows such as important documentaries or news items that were deemed highly influential or significant. Also productions of famous authors such as Dennis Potter or Alan Bleasedale who found new recognition in this new field of televised Drama. Unfortunately, little insight was given to the impact of what was then seen as incidental comedy, ordinary repeated drama series and comedy shows, such as ‘Steptoe and Son’, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’, ‘Till Death Us Do Part’, ‘Dad’s Army’ and, possibly most famous of all international ‘Doctor Who’.

At the time, these shows were seen as incidental programs, ‘fads’ of their age. No one realized how famous they would become and how influential they were to define the age they filmed in and the cultural impact they maintained. Instead, if the footage was too old it was simply thrown away, or if the film was good enough to reuse, the film was ‘wiped’ and a new program was recorded on it.

For many enthusiasts this purge on the BBC storage of film footage is the equivalent of the burning of the Library of Alexandra, as so many beloved programs were lost. Fortunately not all fell afoul of this desecration. As such, many of the productions survived, but some of the serials and seasons are completely lost, or important episodes missing.

When Video Recording and DVD’s allowed the public to no longer having to wait for the favorite programs to be repeated, the BBC found a new income in producing copies of the favorite programs stored, but it also highlighted just how much had been destroyed, and a massive campaign began, and continues today, to try and find lost copies. Fortune favored and initially several lost episodes came to light. Some from countries that either had copies of the originals that never got returned to England, some from private collections, some which had been taken by enthusiasts during the purge.

The desire to find the lost episodes, especially of the past 20 years, has created stories that echo the adventures of Indiana Jones, of whispers of lost recordings being found in remote collections in Africa. Rumors abound of vast amounts of money being exchanged for private collections. Yet, equally, possibly more enchanting and the stories of lost film reels being found in sheds and lofts, giving excited delight to those dedicated fans. Although, seeing that people actually hold careers in looking for this modern Holy Grails, these really must be listed as Top Treasures!

So check your cupboards, honestly these films have been found all over the world, check that box with the old family footage cine-film in, as you may have a prize waiting!

~ Beatrice Mercedes:  an avid writer and explorer into all things fun and interesting.  

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1 Response

  1. Jenny Kile says:

    Thanks Beatrice. While reading, I am reminded of old film reels my dad had and used to show us on his projector. I’m not sure where he ever got them. They were of Micky Mouse in original form. The one I remember most was of a Micky Mouse going into a Haunted House, and Goofy got caught, then chased by skeletons. I will have to get them out and have a film night with my kids (and their grandparents). Thanks again! Those memorable times alone are treasures!

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